Why the Survivor Finale was Ladies Night

The first order of business this blog is to doff my metaphorical hat to Andy Baker for correctly calling Denise’s victory. It was the logical outcome, but I freely admit being suckered in by her minimal edit. Between that and Lisa’s willingness to go to the end with her, I came up with a far-fetched scenario in which Lisa could have won. As has been the theme of these last four episodes, I am now eating last week’s words, but I am delighted to do so. Denise was my favorite cast-member going into this, and the main reason I didn’t pick her to win was because it’s so typically unusual for the strategic older woman to gain the trust of her tribe.

At any rate, Andy wins our inter-blog arguments this season. I shall have to try and improve my record next time!

Revealing The Invisible Woman

After One World it was refreshing to go into a finale feeling like every contestant left had a shot (OK, I had no faith in Skupin pulling out the win, but a number of other people did). Despite Denise’s landslide victory, which should have been predictable, the editors did a good job of keeping us in suspense. Unfortunately, this came at the expense of Denise’s camera-time, meaning we have yet another female winner who was a secondary character on the show. It brings to mind Probst’s comments from early this season that he was surprised so many people liked Denise. I’m just hoping that production have taken the lesson from this that they can take a gamble on giving a ‘boring’ player camera-time, when they are smart rather than funny.

Of course, Denise did not give the producers that much to show post-merge. I have speculated that she was perhaps a little burned out or else deliberately flying under the radar. Michael said in the podcast that he felt she rode Malcolm’s coat-tails, an opinion Pete shared in his The Jury Speaks video.

Malcolm said in an interview with that Pete and Carter anticipated Jeff Probst’s “Would Malcolm have won?” reunion question and, together with Penner, conspired not to raise their hands just to mess around with the host. While nobody’s backed up this claim, nobody’s disproved it either, and it sounds absolutely like something they would do. It would certainly make no sense for Carter to vote for Denise against Malcolm when he didn’t vote for her without!

That said, those reunion polls aren’t trustworthy regardless. Penner speculated in his Jury Speaks that Denise might have been telling Malcolm what to do. That kind of thing is unlikely to be substantiated, but Denise and Malcolm obviously strategized together throughout the game (save for the week they were separated). Doubtless both made contributions, and probably each felt that they were in control. I will, however, credit Malcolm for most of the endgame maneuvering. As he said on the podcast, he was trying to get his final four settled before anybody else did, and he certainly made his final three deal before Denise was ready to bring it up.

Yet I can’t overlook the fact that from the time he joined Tandang, Malcolm did nothing but procrastinate. It ended up not hurting him, but he dithered over picking a side until he had no choices left but his least favorite: Penner. (Though in all likelihood, he would have only had to bat his eyes at Pete to re-open that alliance.)

So let’s look at the whole game. Denise was a satisfying winner, if for no other reason than she had that great story of surviving every Tribal Council. Nobody has ever executed ‘outlast’ in such thorough fashion! (She also gets the record for oldest female winner – Tina Wesson had held that one since Australia.) But more than that, Denise ‘won’ Matsing. In that tribe, she got herself to the final three with two players who wanted to go forward with her. She did not have to rely on anybody; she had the choice: Russell or Malcolm. She then found her way into both of the dueling alliances on Kalabaw. She said in the podcast that Dana’s departure saved her, but she made the right argument: “Keep me, and I can bring over Malcolm.”

One other little thing she did on Kalabaw was to tell Jonathan who Lisa was. She explains in her xfinity interview that she knew who Lisa was straightaway, and talked to her about it during the mud-wrestling challenge. (Really, editors? That didn’t make the cut?) Penner couldn’t work out where he knew Lisa from, and Denise told him (it’s not clear if this was before or after her conversation with Lisa).

It did not really impact the game, as Penner might well have asked Lisa outright who she was (and I doubt she would have evaded him), but it’s an example of the little moves players make without us ever knowing. Denise gave Lisa the information that she had recognized her but not made it public knowledge, and she gave Jonathan the information on Lisa’s past. Giving information is a great way to earn trust in the game.

One of the points Jonathan made in his video was that Denise had been at the bottom of the pecking order (or should have been) for half the Tribal Councils she went to. He believed that, as the tiny old lady, she’d be out first on Matsing. As it turned out, she never even had a vote against her until she was on Kalabaw, and even then it was just the one. She didn’t become a target after that until final six, but once Penner was gone and Malcolm had immunity, she should have been at risk every Tribal Council.

Having made the merge, Denise did not bring Malcolm to Kalabaw; instead he brought her to Tandang, but she took Jeff and Carter with her, rather than burn her bridges. The only time in the game that she did not vote with the majority was when Jeff got taken out the following Tribal Council, but by that point, Malcolm was voting with Kalabaw. Lisa’s exposure of his idol might have been the deciding factor, but we can’t ignore that this worked out much better for Denise than being Malcolm’s tagalong on Tandang.

It ended up being a Matsing/Tandang alliance that took control of course, and Denise did not make such a strong showing in the endgame, though she did get herself in the smart alliance. While she never blindly trusted Malcolm, she would have gone along with him to the end, and I am sure she would have lost to his charisma in that situation. Fortunately for her, Malcolm didn’t have the nerve to lie to her outright.

What I won’t give Denise credit for is swaying Skupin. She put forth a good argument, but he seemed pretty set on keeping his word to Malcolm, convinced he could beat even the Golden Boy. Thankfully, Lisa is not a subscriber to the theory of Final Four Immunity Holder Decides the Final Three. She more or less said that she would force a tie if Skupin insisted on voting out Denise. In other words, Malcolm’s fatal mistake was not his honesty with Denise, but letting Lisa spend time with her brother, getting her head back into the game. It took that last bit of luck to get Denise to the finals and her win.

It could also be said that Denise got lucky in that she’d not got the early-game connections with most of the jury, so they were less bitter at her than at Skupin and Lisa. I agree with Lisa that that was probably a factor in her win, but on the other hand, she was in that position because her tribe got wiped out before the merge! It’s serendipity at best, and it was earned by her hard-won survival of Matsing’s trainwreck.

Arguably, that was a disadvantage too, as none of the jurors save Malcolm had seen Denise’s gameplay on Matsing, and the Kalabaw jurors like Carter and Jeff were more challenge oriented (while Denise made a really dominant showing in the challenges and was a contender in most of the individual ones, she only won the necklace once). Since Malcolm arrived so late, the only person at Ponderosa likely to talk up Denise for the win was Penner.

The Potential Problem of Ponderosa

One of the other problems with the edit is that it encouraged Skupin to believe that he had won the game. While I had personally ruled out Skupin as a contender come Sunday night, there were some people still predicting him for the win, and, as he said, he could only view the game from his perspective. You’re always the hero of your own point of view. Though I’ve not been the biggest Skupin fan, I have to have sympathy for him, because he’s a huge competitor and that kind of disappointment on national television really has to suck.

How Skupin will view his loss in the long term, or even after he’s had time to watch all the Jury Speaks videos, is anybody’s guess, but his immediate reaction was to blame Ponderosa. He explained on the podcast that somebody had threatened to run a smear campaign against him at Ponderosa, spreading lies about what he’d done to ensure that none of the other jurors would ever vote for him. This isn’t an entirely unheard of tactic. One World’s Sabrina swore to Kim that if she got voted off, she’d be a bitter juror and would never vote for her. I don’t know if anybody’s threatened a negative campaign before, but I expect it’s happened.

That doesn’t mean the threat was carried out. Skupin didn’t name the person involved, but my guess would be Pete or Penner, both of whom knew they were in trouble and pulled out all the stops in their efforts to stay. I could see either of them making a threat like that, but that doesn’t mean they bothered carrying through with it. Indeed, Pete tweeted to Skupin that nobody did any lobbying at Ponderosa.

However, this has long been a bone of contention in the game. South Pacific’s Albert has always contended that he lost votes due to things that were said at Ponderosa, and the Nicaragua rumors are that Jane did her part in ensuring Sash would get no votes. Plenty of people have argued that jurors should be sequestered until Tribal Council, though Probst has said that that’s not really feasible.

My own take on this is that players know Ponderosa is there. It’s up to them to figure out how to play it. Skupin said that you can’t control what people say there or how they vote; Lisa said that one of her reasons for putting Abi on the jury was that she felt Abi was a certain vote for her, and might talk Pete and Artis into voting for her. Lisa was wrong in that hope, but it was worth the try.

Lisa also understood the benefit of performing for the jury at Tribal Council. Michael said they’d seen Abi wink and smile at her former allies on the jury, which concerned him, but Lisa was working the jury too. At the Tribal Council when Abi was voted off, there was her outburst of Tandang loyalty when Denise accused the tribe of being lucky to win every challenge. At the final four Tribal Council, Lisa described her alliance with Michael as an open relationship, where they would not necessarily vote together – presumably to guard against accusations of riding his coat-tails. Besides this, her calm revelation that she would be voting for Malcolm that night helped her gain credit for his boot.

It wasn’t enough for Lisa, who had spent too much time crying and going back and forth earlier in the game, but she absolutely had the right idea. Going back to South Pacific’s Albert, while it’s not clear if anybody in Ponderosa sabotaged him, Sophie admitted that she’d tried to make him look bad at several Tribal Councils, though most of that didn’t make the show. In general, Sophie is a good example of somebody who knew how to perform at Tribal Council, which probably compensated for her lack of in-game social connections. In the long run, Tribal Council is your best opportunity to put your narrative to the jurors.

While Pete could well be telling the truth about no active lobbying, jurors absolutely influence each other. RC seemed to ostracize herself from the other jurors and was unlikely to be swayed by their opinions, but she found out early on that Skupin had betrayed her by voting with Tandang the night she went home. Otherwise, she might have gone into Final Tribal Council thinking he’d stayed loyal to her. And while we didn’t see any campaigning from the jurors, they certainly discussed the game and how the players left were screwing it up.

And then there’s Penner. In his column last week, Andy Baker said that Penner was born to play the role of jury foreman, and he did not disappoint – at least not as far as drama goes. In another respect, he disappointed a number of people, myself included, when he revealed Lisa’s actress past. Either Skupin or Denise could have brought that up in support of their own case to win; both chose not to, but Jonathan, who gained no advantage, saw fit to out her.

Of course, there’s no rule against him doing that. Lisa knew he had that information; she should have been prepared for it. (In fact, she was. Her argument that nobody had really shared what they’d done as a teenager was the same one she’d put to Skupin all the way back in episode one.) Not only that, but he was egged on by production. The day after the finale, he tweeted: “@Jeffprobst says I was petty for outing Lisa W? Funny. He asked me to save talking bout her w jury till FT & cameras! under the bus indeed!” This sounds highly plausible and precisely the kind of thing that Penner would collaborate on; even Lisa’s show business side approved of it as the climax to her story.

I’m not sure how much effect it had on the votes, since I doubt anybody else was planning to vote for her anyway (unless this ended up being the final straw for Abi). Most of the younger players didn’t know the show and didn’t care, though I’d like to know what Jeff thought, considering his own carefully preserved secret. There’s another unanswered question: when did everybody find out who Jeff Kent was?

Aside from showboating, why did Jonathan do it? Probably for similar reasons to Jaison in Samoa. He essentially asked the finalists how much money they had in real life, and then told the rest of the jury that they were all comfortably off and nobody needed the million. However, his actual motivation behind that question was to reveal that Russell was already a millionaire, and much wealthier than either Mick or Natalie. Jaison wanted to make sure his choice of winner won.

And that’s what it comes down to. The jury is made up of egotistical and competitive people whose relationships are based on manipulating each other to win a game. Why do we expect them to stop once their torch is snuffed? Instead, they set a secondary goal. Most jurors express pride in the fact that they will decide the winner of the game, and some of them take it further than others.

Jonathan’s choice of winner was Denise, which he acknowledged in his video before Final Tribal Council. He came on aggressively to all three finalists, but while he accused Lisa of duplicity and Skupin of inventing the supposed target on his back, all he said to Denise was that she was a bitch, which, on Survivor is not a major reason to vote against somebody. Besides, the main quibble the jury had about Denise was that she had played a passive, inoffensive game (at least for the last part). Calling her a bitch went against that. Malcolm was aggressive towards Denise for similar reasons; he knew she was the favorite to win, but he wanted her to show some fire and earn the win from any jurors who were undecided.

The Final Decision

Although I expected Lisa to put in a blinding performance at Tribal Council, nobody really did. Lisa’s talk about running and falling down was too honest; the jury wanted to hear that she had some over-arching strategy, but she admitted that there was no method to her madness until the very end. Even when she took her credit for voting off Malcolm, it was after establishing that she couldn’t get him out when she originally wanted. As I’ve already said, she handled Jonathan’s question well, but she didn’t really give anybody a reason to vote for her.

Skupin gave a decent enough speech, but as I predicted last week, he lacked the self-awareness to respond effectively to this jury. When RC challenged him about his betrayal of her (something he should have anticipated), he claimed that he believed Penner was the target, not her. If he’s telling the truth and did not realize that it was a split vote, then he proved to the jury that he was as clueless as they thought. As far as RC went, he still betrayed her by virtue of not telling her how he was voting.

And then there was Denise, who also gave a good if somewhat generic opening statement. Among the things she said was that she was not going to apologize for what she did, but she knew when to go back on that promise. When Abi took her to task for the things Denise had said at Tribal Council, Denise apologized immediately, but she was careful to apply that apology only to Abi’s “traumatized” feelings, not for her incompatible gameplay.

Her answer to Malcolm was absolutely perfect. She owned her appeasement, explained how it had worked for her and confronted him with the difference in their positions. Again, no apologies for how she played the game, but she proved that she was capable of a more aggressive tack for anybody who had doubted it.

Otherwise, both answers and questions were fairly stock, but honestly, I’m not sure how many people had their minds changed at Tribal Council anyway. Let’s get back to the question of why Skupin didn’t win. RC was interested in validating her game, so she voted for the person she had initially targeted as a threat during her brief tenure as alliance leader. Pete observed that Skupin had been the swing vote since the merge and in that respect, he had perhaps had more sway over the game than anybody, but he felt Skupin could have done a better job of getting to the end without irritating people. Penner expressed a similar opinion: that Skupin (and Lisa) had assisted in destroying their tribe in a way that pissed everybody off.

Even Carter, who cast the lone Skupin vote, said in his Jury Speaks video that he didn’t know if Skupin had ever made a strategic move. His vote was probably based on challenge dominance, or it might even have been a vote against Denise for her “win against the best” claim a few weeks back.

Obviously, none of us expected Artis to vote for Skupin, but it’s worth noting that Artis finally revealed on Twitter just what had caused his Skupin dislike. (His Tweet; Skupin’s response.) In a nutshell, Artis’ story is that Skupin built a shelter on Tandang that collapsed, and he felt that it could have severely injured anybody inside. Skupin says he’s lying, although he seems to be referring to the danger rather than the collapsing shelter. I imagine both players believe their own stories, and judging by Malcolm’s evasion of the topic on the Know-It-All’s podcast, we’re unlikely to get a second opinion from the other players.

I doubt it affected anybody’s vote but Artis’, however building a shelter that collapses does go some way to explain the opinion the other players held of Skupin – and why Pete and Artis deterred him from building a shelter for the fire on day six, as he recounted in his podcast interview. Skupin’s inability to perceive himself as others do makes it almost impossible for him to win Survivor, no matter how hard he plays.

Cougar Island

In the end, this was the season for the demographic most typically sidelined in Survivor: older women. It’s not the first time the two oldest women in the game have made the final three (Vanuatu, obviously!), but this time around, not only did one of them win, but the other scored fan favorite. I would not call Lisa the Player of the Season, but I do think she’s a worthy winner of a popularity contest. I’ve said several times on this blog that I’d been fascinated by her struggle with the game, and our resident storyteller, Jonathan Penner, said several episodes back that she had made more of a journey through this experience than any other player.

I admit that I am also just a smidge satisfied that Malcolm did not win… not so much because I begrudge Malcolm the prize as I begrudge the editors for glorifying him. Malcolm himself said on the Know-it-alls cast that he would have liked more of his mean side to be shown. I think I might have appreciated Malcolm a lot more if they had allowed him to be Tyson rather than Golden Boy.

Besides, there was no obvious contender for the season’s best player. Just about everybody made serious mistakes at some point, but unlike Heroes vs Villains where everybody played a terrible game, almost the entire cast had a good plan to their credit. It made for a great season, and if they ever wanted to try a same-cast, different game season, this would be the cast to use (however unlikely it might be that they would all be up for it).

Thanks to everybody who has read and commented (or otherwise given me feedback) this season. It’s been a pleasure to write about. Enjoy the midwinter festivities of choice, and see you next season!

Become a patron of RHAP